House and Senate leaders made a splash Wednesday when they tentatively agreed to remove a floundering $16.1 million fish hatchery project that’s been obstructing the flow of state budget negotiations for the last several weeks.
But the House Democratic caucus chairman says the verbal agreement hinges on whether the Senate supports funding for an infant mortality program.
If they don’t, “that’ll kill the deal,” said House Democratic Leader Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.
Senate Republicans stripped the infant mortality program from the budget last week, saying there was a lack of justification to keep the $4.5 million in spending intact.
Ramsey said Wednesday he wasn’t committed, though, to adding the infant mortality program back into the budget until he sees proof that the program is needed.
Democrats in the House and House Speaker Kent Williams have kept the line item in their budget.
“We will protect our children. We will not, in the House, give in. That is a sticking point we will not negotiate, we will not negotiate,” said Williams.
The House and Senate speakers struck the verbal agreement Wednesday, but acknowledged it’s not a done deal. Besides the infant mortality program, there are still minor differences between the House and Senate budgets.
The deal between leaders would sink Williams’ hopes, for this year anyway, of building the fish hatchery in his home district of Carter County.
Williams, a former Republican turned independent, took plenty of heat over the cold-water trout-rearing facility. Some critics took to saying fish is “the new pork” in reference to the project.
The House speaker has maintained that the hatchery is in fact a good idea, makes economic sense, and that his district is entitled to it. He’s argued that all the controversy surrounding the project has been contrived by former party-mates as a form of comeuppance because he turned against them to get himself elected speaker last year.
Remaining sticking points including a state employee bonus, tax breaks for flood victims and money for community colleges.